Seen on Broadway: Peppier than White Christmas, but longer than The Grinch. That’s the neither naughty nor nice verdict on Elf, the biggest of our stage/screen attractions this week, and this season’s Broadway show geared toward the holiday crowd. After several productions not quite sized to fit their stages it’s a welcome change for design watchers to see a production that fills its venue, if only for a few weeks at the Al Hirschfeld.
But Elf has clearly been priced to move, and spawn new elves across the country. Co-writers Thomas Meehan (The Producers) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, also directed by Casey Nicholaw) have spritzed up the 2003 Christmas hit with environmental and other almost-up-to-the-minute jokes, working about as hard as composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, of the flop Broadway tuner contrived from The Wedding Singer. The drowsy chaperone herself, Beth Leavel, is in the cast, along with George Wendt (as Santa) and, in a charming turn, Sebastian Arcelus as Buddy the oversized elf, who leaves the North Pole for New York to find his stressed-out human family and instill the Christmas spirit. Nicholaw hasn’t given it too forceful a sell, making for a pleasantly fluffy entertainment that evaporates as quickly as a snowflake.
The heft, such as it is, comes from David Rockwell’s flats, including a nifty Rockefeller Center tree and other familiar city landmarks that can presumably be bundled up and put into storage until they’re reopened next Christmas for wherever the show goes next. Giving them sparkle and texture is a candied Natasha Katz lighting design and Yuletide projections by Zachary Borovay, highlighted by a display of North Pole denizens that recalls both the movie and those Rankin Bass TV specials of yesteryear. Sound (Peter Hylenski) and costumes (Gregg Barnes) more than add to the requisite festive air. Not competition for The Nutcracker but not the worst way to spend a little holiday time with the family, Elf runs through Jan. 2 before returning to Santa’s workshop.
At the other extreme is the Broadway debut of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, a smash-hit Off Broadway and the Oscar-winning best picture of 1989. Based on what’s on view at the Golden the story of two aging cultural outsiders who become friends against a backdrop of progressive change in Atlanta in the 50s and 60s worked better as a movie, which more capably filled in the details while giving it the necessary intimacy. And I’m sure it played better in a smaller house, where it’s easier to accept the abstraction of two actors miming the sharing of a car. Putting the performers on a bench that acts as the car and conveying them on a turntable seems impoverished on a much bigger stage; why not put them in the frame of the vintage auto discussed in the play?
Then again the show puts two fine actors, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, behind the wheel as the Jewish matron and her driver. What might have been a hamfest (and I give due credit to director David Esbjornson as a moderating influence) is played at more modest size, as the characters change incrementally over the years. (Moving along with them is Daisy’s beleaguered son, well played by Boyd Gaines.) Unerringly dressed by Jane Greenwood, they make an exquisite team, prickly and touching and true.
If only they were closer to us. John Lee Beatty, a master of enveloping environments, has only half-built a set, a somewhat skeletal edifice with a staircase fleshed out by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Wendall K. Harrington’s era-setting projections. The emptied-out look of the stage is a disappointment, not that eyes will wander too much off its leads. Better is Christopher Cronin’s sound design, which is largely tasked to pipe in a Mark Bennett score that recalls the film. Driving Miss Daisy runs through Jan. 29.
The last Broadway show to open in 2010, Elling, is also one of its least. I root for little shows like this to work but generally speaking British imports that don’t deal explicitly with British subjects (monarchy, the class system, coal miners, etc.) are problematic, particularly comedies whose humor doesn’t really cross the pond. In this instance, however, Norwegians are to blame, as Elling is based on a popular novel, play, and film (an Oscar nominee) that wound up on the West End in 2007 (the English adaptation is by Simon Bent) and is now at the Ethel Barrymore, lost and bedraggled.
Elling (Denis O’Hare), an agoraphobic would-be poet with a mother complex, and the lunkheaded 40-year-old virgin Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser, who I can only hope let himself go for his Broadway debut) are mental patients who, released to an apartment in Oslo, try to find a place for themselves in the city. A social worker (Jeremy Shamos), a potential mentor for Elling (Richard Easton), and a heavily pregnant neighbor (Jennifer Coolidge) who takes a liking to Kjell Bjarne oblige them to reconnect. I can’t really fault the cast, all of whom have their moments (the frowsy Coolidge, who plays all the female roles, is hilarious as an acidic poet in the second act), nor the direction of Doug Hughes, though it is heavy-handed in places. The characters are too sketchy, and the whimsy too thick, however, for the show to gather any real momentum over two hours; the intermission is near-fatal in that respect.
The design is fine for what it is: a minimally furnished apartment set with a hint of Ikea (Scott Pask), unfussy clothing (Catherine Zuber), lighting (Kenneth Posner) that transforms the space into a nightclub and a woodsy cottage, and a subtle sound design and music (David van Tieghem) that draws you into the peculiar orbit of its odd couple. But only so far, and the show closed on Nov. 28.
Seen Off Broadway: Though it follows the fortunes of a character from one of his previous plays Peter Nichols’ Lingua Franca is otherwise unburdened by close relation to a movie or other prior source. That said its shifts in tone and emotion will make you wish there was a book or film to return to for clarification. Set in Florence in the mid-50s and about a motley group of teachers at a foreign-language school, the play transpires at an intriguing moment in history, with Europe and England on the wane, the Cold War in its ascendancy, and the Holocaust still a raw wound.
Much of it is set in the school’s anteroom, where its owner, Gennaro (Enzo Cilenti), contends with his staff, including, from Nichols’ World War II-set Privates on Parade Steven (Chris New), and fellow English expats Jestin (Ian Gelder), a fusty romantic, and Peggy (Charlotte Randle), whose seen-it-all attitude conceals desperate longings. Rounding out the group are a tough lesbian from Australia, Madge (Abigail McKern), a Russian émigré, Irena (Anna Carteret), and an attractive visitor from Germany, Heidi (Natalie Walter). That Heidi has a distinctly Aryan attitude toward Hitler and the Jews is just one complication, romantic and otherwise, that roils the group—and throws the play off-balance as it hurtles toward a melodramatic climax. Something seems to have gotten lost in translation, not that the production is ever dull.
While I had trouble deciphering Nichols’ intentions, I’m pleased to report that here we have a fully harmonious staging, with its original London cast and director, Michael Gieleta, imported for the occasion. James Macnamara’s forlorn set suggests a decline and fall, which Emily Stuart’s costumes ground in its era. Radoslaw Konopka’s projections instill a Florentine sense of art and beauty. This is contrasted to the drudgery of teaching, as the instructors are isolated in James Smith’s spotlight and address Italian-speaking students, a rabble convincingly suggested by sound designer Will Jackson. Part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, Lingua Franca closes Nov. 28.
Driving Miss Daisy